Truly understanding someone or something is probably the most difficult thing we can ever do. To truly understand someone, we need to know not only what they’re saying or doing, but where they’re coming from. We need to know basically all the background that led them to this moment, right now, in order to get what they mean.
I can’t tell you how many disagreements with my friends over the years stemmed from the fact that, at the end of the day, we just didn’t understand one another. Either they were approaching an argument from a completely different perspective, or their life experience and mine were totally different, or we just focused on different things.
I remember one conversation when I was 14 or 15. When I was in school, a lot of other kids came to me for advice, so I would give it to them, and because they were also teenagers, they’d never listen. But that’s beside the point. I remember one girl talking to me about how she and her parents absolutely did not get along, and how she didn’t know what they wanted from her, and how she didn’t trust them to even do what was best for her.
I sat there and argued up and down that, even though she and her parents didn’t see eye-to-eye, they loved her and would love her no matter what – I mean, they were her parents, after all. To me, that settled the issue. I would imagine myself as a parent, and knew that I would sometimes have to say and/or do things that my own child would disagree with, and I felt sympathy for this girl’s parents. Now, being a parent, I know that I was right that we sometimes do things our kids can’t understand, just because they need it, whether they know that or not. It’s part of the job of being a parent.
And I thought this was a pretty wise answer for a teenager. And on some level, it was. I had parents, I knew a lot of other kids’ parents. I knew how parents acted. But… did I really? See, I’ve regretted that conversation for a long, long time, because what I’ve learned as I’ve gotten older is that I was speaking out of my experience. I believed that parents were trustworthy because my parents were trustworthy. I believed that parents were always going to try to do the right thing, because my parents always tried to do the right thing. As I got a little more world-wise, it finally occurred to me that it was possible that this girl’s parents really weren’t looking out for her best interest; they might have been abusive, or negligent, or just bad parents. But those things didn’t even cross my mind, because I had no life experience that would guide me to even think of that conclusion. So I’ve always wondered if I let that little 14- or 15-year-old girl down, because I didn’t know where she was coming from. Maybe I was right that it was just parents making a tough choice their teenage daughter couldn’t understand; but maybe I didn’t actually understand what she was saying; maybe she was trying to get a message to me that I just wasn’t getting. (If you’re waiting for the resolution to this story, there isn’t one – I have no idea to this day what happened; I just know that it’s gnawed at the back of my mind for most of my life.)
Anyway, I’m talking about understanding because that’s something we see in the disciples today. Today’s passage from Acts revolves around the Ascension. “Ascension” is a word that means “going up.” Interestingly, this is not a day that’s talked about all that much in the Christian calendar, and it’s maybe even something you’ve never really thought about. We all know about the birth at Christmas. We all know about how Jesus was crucified and died on Good Friday, and we all know how he came back to life on Easter Sunday. But maybe you’ve never thought about what happened after that.
After resurrecting, Jesus continued in ministry with his disciples, until it was time for him to return to heaven with God. At that point, Jesus had his “Ascension” which is what we remember today on the final Sunday of the Easter season in the church year. But before we get to the flashy part about Jesus flying up into the clouds, we have a really interesting exchange between the disciples and Jesus.
They ask him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” Now, there’s a lot to unpack in this question, so I want to give it the time it deserves. Maybe you didn’t think about that question when I started reading, but it’s really revealing. Perhaps you’ve heard before about how there were expectations about the Messiah before Jesus was born. People expected the Messiah to be a King; he would be someone to overthrow the other political powers of the day, and he would help restore Israel to be its own kingdom.
When Jesus showed up, though, things got very confusing. For those who didn’t believe in Jesus, it was pretty easy not to – I mean, he was none of those things. But for those who did believe, they believed him to be the Messiah, the Savior, even though he wasn’t any of the things they expected. He was born in a barn to a poor family. He was a great teacher and healer, not a military leader. He preached Good News for all people, including Samaritans and Romans, not just to fellow Jews. Jesus upended expectations all over the place.
And yet, when it came down to brass tax, there were obviously still some of his followers who never adjusted their expectations as to what the end-game of Jesus’ ministry was about. They asked if he was finally going to restore the Kingdom of Israel. Israel as a kingdom had been gone for literally hundreds of years. The distance between Christopher Columbus and now is about how long it was between the end of the monarchy and when Jesus came along. These guys weren’t hoping for a return of something they, or anyone they knew, remembered.
Instead, they couldn’t shake this idea that was hung up in their past. They still believed that part of Jesus’ ministry was going to be restoring a kingdom they never knew. And, of course, Jesus was all about a kingdom they had never known – but he wasn’t about an earthly kingdom – he was all about the Kingdom of God. The problem was a lack of understanding. And Jesus was the solution.
While the disciples hoped for a return to glory days they never knew, Jesus was showing them a brighter future. Jesus was about revealing the Kingdom of God, because the disciples needed to see that there wasn’t some perfect time in the past that they could harken back to, but rather that the future needed to be written by God’s hand alone.
I’ve said this in a lot of sermons before, but I always have a lot of sympathy for the disciples. They have a tough job – they’re trying to follow Jesus. After all, that’s what we’re doing today. And I think we too easily laugh at their misunderstandings, or we forget how clueless we sometimes are. I really empathize with the disciples in this passage, though.
How many of us, if we were asked, “When was the best time in history to grow up?” would believe that when we were brought up was the best time? I would bet it’s most of us. The people before us had it too hard, the people after us had it too easy. The generations before were too hardened and not realistic enough; the generations after us are spoiled and don’t understand the value of work like we do. That’s how people are – we are limited in our viewpoints.
Similarly, the disciples are limited in their viewpoints. Even though they’ve been exposed to all of the remarkable things Jesus has done, they cling to this particular vision of “the way things should be.” They can’t help it, just as we can’t, because they’re just regular ol’ human beings, and all people are limited by their experience and by what they’ve seen in this world.
Undoubtedly, these disciples grew up with stories of King David defeating other kings around him and uniting the Jewish people. They grew up hearing of Solomon’s great wisdom and riches. So they thought, “Now those were the days. If only things were like that, everything would be great.” But that’s not what God saw – God saw a vision for a future disconnected from the past, but as something entirely new. And Jesus had to explain that.
Just as those disciples 2000 years ago were confused and misguided, we get that way, too sometimes. We believe that it’s only our vision of what’s right that could possibly be true. So we fight for what we think is right. Of course, though, we have to realize that many other people, including other Christians, fight for what they think is right. Just as the disciples tried even though they didn’t “get it” all the way, that’s what we do, too. It’s impossible to know exactly what Jesus would have us do in any given situation, but what we strive for as Christians is a closer relationship with him, so that we can better learn from him to do what’s right.
We are sometimes just as confused and misguided as the disciples. We question Jesus’ wisdom, we question our own hearts, and we get mixed up. But I think the most important thing to glean from this passage is Jesus’ response.
“It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” See, Jesus doesn’t expect us to have all the answers. In fact, he specifically says that we won’t. We aren’t going to know exactly what God’s coming kingdom will look like, or when it will come, or who belongs, or who’s been perfectly right. But that’s because those things don’t matter. It’s not about being perfect in belief or in practice; it’s about being perfect in love of Christ. So we make it our goal to love the Lord with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength, because we can do that.
After saying this, Jesus goes up to heaven, and the disciples watch. Suddenly and without warning, two angels appear next to them. They say, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.” It’s a brilliant reminder – don’t just stand around waiting for Jesus to return. Don’t just stare at the clouds hoping Christ is returning to bring the full glory of God’s Kingdom. Jesus set a task to do in his final words. We are to be witnesses to Christ.
We witness to Christ in how we treat those who need help, by loving our neighbors, and by loving God. Jesus doesn’t set us arbitrary tasks, and he also doesn’t ask us to keep our heads in the clouds all the time. We have work to do. So whether we know just about everything or just about nothing, whether we’ve got it almost all right or almost all wrong, we have work to do. Brothers and sisters, let’s love God and love our neighbors, and thereby do the work. It’s what Jesus asks of us. Amen.